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What it’s really like to work in a students’ union/association, and how can we improve it?

What it’s really like to work in a students’ union/association, and how can we improve it?

Being data-driven is a key priority for many organisations, and we believe it’s essential to helping us to better understand the employee experience of our people today, whilst informing our future people and culture strategy. Atkinson HR Consulting were therefore delighted to have partnered with NUS Charity and Agenda Consulting to produce its first ever Employee Engagement Insights report, that reflects on the 2022 Employee Engagement Survey and aims to answer the question ‘what it’s really like to work in a student’s union/association?’

Our insights report provides a snapshot of the employee experience across the student movement and includes reflections on staff perception of pay and reward, leadership, recognition, wellbeing, DEI and much more. This year, nearly 2,400 employees across 38 unions/associations participated in the survey, giving us a huge amount of data to help unions/associations to reflect on their own feedback and within a wider context. Through this data we consider what may be contributing to employee perceptions, themes amongst different groups of employees, and the lessons we can learn from across the sector more generally.

In this article, we’ve outlined 3 interesting insights from the 2022 Survey. You can explore more insights by downloading the full report here.

  1. More inclusive organisations will attract and retain more diversity

23% of employees are from minoritized-ethnic backgrounds, which is above the total UK workforce average (12%) and above the average for the charity sector (10%). 60% of respondents are women or transwomen, which is higher than the general workforce (47%), and 15% identify with a gender that is different from birth.

It’s not surprising that the sector appears to be more diverse than the UK workforce in general, since 87% of respondents agreed that their organisation values diversity, suggesting that it is a high priority for most students’ unions/associations. That said, these statistics aren’t reflected in all organisations, with some unions/associations seeing much more diverse workforces and others with less than 6% of employees from minoritized-ethnic backgrounds. By embracing hybrid, remote and flexible working, and focusing much more on building inclusive cultures, organisations that create the most belonging are those that see the greatest return on their DEI efforts.

The unions/associations that are most ethnically diverse are those that are more inclusive, with organisations with the most racial diversity scoring 12% higher for the question “this organisation has a culture that nurtures and encourages those from an under-represented group to pursue their chosen career”.

We also saw more positive responses from these organisations regarding their efforts to attract, retain and develop people with diverse backgrounds and for providing equal opportunities to succeed. This suggests that the more effort unions/associations put in to being inclusive employers that nurture diverse talent, the more likely they are to attract and retain great people from a variety of backgrounds.

  1. Fair pay is more important than the amount we’re paid

How employees feel about their SU’s/SA’s approach to pay fairness and transparency has a bigger impact on job satisfaction than the amount they’re actually paid.

Participants were asked whether they feel that their pay is fair – both in comparison to others in the union/association and relative to their work. In other words, “am I paid enough for what I do and the experience I’m having at work?”

Unions/Associations with the lowest pay and reward scores also saw lower scores in other important areas like leadership, wellbeing, learning & development, and diversity & inclusion – while employees whose organisations seem to place greater emphasis on these areas are more likely to have a positive perception of reward.

Considerate benchmarking and fair and transparent pay practices that are well understood are the most effective ways to ensure people feel satisfied with their pay. If you are confident that this is the case, but you are still seeing low scores in this area, it’s much more likely to be about the overall employee experience.

  1. A focus on positive wellbeing will help your employer brand

Employees who are happy at work are most likely to stay there for longer, put in extra effort and be ambassadors of our work and employer brand. Unions/Associations that scored most highly for wellbeing also scored higher in questions relating to advocacy, loyalty, motivation, and engagement.

Research by CIPD1 shows that the top cause of stress at work is excessive workload, and our survey shows that 1 in 6 people and 25% of managers think that their workload is excessive and prevents them from doing a good job.
So how do we improve it? Well, the most effective organisations will focus on actions – not words. This includes equipping line managers to spot potential causes of stress so that they can provide individualised support, as well as careful job design, ensuring clear goals and priorities are shared and understood, and that healthy behaviours are supported.

Learning from data

The 2022 survey and insights report provide an interesting picture of the employee experience across students’ unions/associations right now. Although benchmarking is useful tool, the opportunity to expand on the data, identify themes and draw connections can help us to reflect more deeply on what might be behind some of the data, and make more focused recommendations for what we can strengthen and change. Of course, none of this is a substitute for finding the stories in your own data, listening to your people and learning from other individual unions/associations. I love hearing about what unions/associations are doing to transform the employee experience in their organisations and can’t wait to see the impact of all their hard work in the 2023 Employee Engagement Survey.


Article written by Eleanor, Lead Consultant & Head of Business Development at Atkinson HR Consulting.
1.CIPD: Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development
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